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Manchester: a literary city?

There is a certain grittiness about Manchester that makes it seem like an unlikely place for writers to flourish. Writing about Paris, Baudelaire said, “You gave me mud and I have turned it to gold”. As any Mancunian could tell you, there is no shortage of mud – or puddles – in Manchester. Indeed, it is its very grittiness that inspires writers.

It is no coincidence that there is a strong preoccupation amongst Manchester-based authors with industry and its social impact. While Baudelaire’s Paris was being rebuilt by Haussmann, Manchester was still in its infancy, the textile boom absorbing surrounding villages into one big, noisy hub of industry. “Manchester,” wrote Jeanette Winterson, “spun riches beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, and wove despair and degradation into the human fabric”.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South tells the story of a young woman, Margaret Hale, who leaves her rural southern home for Milton, a northern industrial city based on Manchester. Besides being an unflinching account of the city’s poverty and cruelty, it is a love story. Margaret overcomes her prejudices and falls in love with the North – and with mill owner John Thornton. Gaskell, though critical of the dehumanising aspects of the industrial revolution, writes about the industrial North with affection and a degree of understanding, unlike Charles Dickens, who presents it in a more negative light in Hard Times.

Manchester’s literary heritage is not confined to industry. Although the working class remains a recurrent theme, more recent authors have branched out to explore all aspects of the human experience. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a chilling vision of a futuristic society wrought with violence and governed by a repressive totalitarian state. With the success of the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, it became a cult classic.

Jeanette Winterson’s experience of growing up in the North led her to write a rather different novel: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is about growing up with a highly religious, domineering, adopted mother – and a silent father – in Accrington, a small town outside of Manchester. In it, Winterson plays with the form of the Old Testament, using memory and one-sided storytelling to describe complicated relationships.

While Manchester leaves its mark on many authors, one author has chosen to leave his mark on it: Lemn Sissay’s ‘Poetry as Landmarks’ appears on the walls of pubs, takeaways, and pavements across the city. His collections of poems, such as Rebel Without Applause, are less social and universal, and more about personal identity and suffering.

With the city’s universities offering creative writing courses that attract ambitious new writers and established authors, Manchester’s literary scene is still flourishing. Last year, the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing appointed Jeanette Winterson as Professor of Creative Writing, following in the footsteps of Martin Amis and, most recently, Colm Toibin. Meanwhile, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is Creative Director of Manchester Metropolitain University’s Manchester Writing School.

Beyond the ivory towers, Mancunians are attending literary salons, poetry slams and readings. Literary blogs and magazines abound, and every October celebrated authors descend on the city for the Manchester Literature Festival. Students and locals alike are taking an interest in literature, reading the words of their predecessors and contemporaries, and even adding their own voices to the mix.

Tags: anthony burgess, Carol Ann Duffy, centre for new writing, Colm Toibin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Industrial Revolution, Jeanette Winterson, Lemn Sissay, literature, Manchester, Manchester Literature Festival, martin amis

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